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The Coverage of Communalism, Race, and Religion

The following transcript is from a panel discussion at the News World Asia conference, held May 9 to 11 in Singapore. Many thanks to Sue Phillips, managing director of News World, for granting TBS permission to print these proceedings.The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Moderator: Mike Wooldridge, BBC South Asia correspondent

Panelists: 
Zaafar Abbas, BBC correspondent, Pakistan
Riza Primadi, director of news and current affairs, Trans-TV, Indonesia 
Arnold Zeitlin, director of the Asian Center of the Freedom Forum 
Prem Prakash, director of Asia News International, India 
Mano Wikramanayake, Maharaja TV (MTV), Sri Lanka 
Stephen Claypole, Chairman of DMA Media; former managing director of APTN, chief editor of Reuters TV, and senior BBC editorial executive


Mike Wooldridge:
 Welcome to what I believe is a conference session that deals with the single most important issue that we deal with as correspondents, editors, news managers and consumers of news as well. Is the world heading towards real pluralism, societies where people really embrace the idea of respecting difference, different racial or ethnic backgrounds and different religions, or where we see more rather than less conflict over ethnicity and religion?

When I left southern Africa at the end of 1990 as one of the BBC's correspondents there and became a religious affairs correspondent, someone I was talking with in the corridor of the television center in London said, aren't you going to miss hard news? It seemed a strange question at the time, not least because so many of the conflicts around the world then appeared at least to have religion as an element in them. It seemed an even stranger question when four years later I went to Rwanda to a church where several thousand people had been massacred in the genocide that had just taken place there—genocide that you may remember was initially regarded by many in the international community and portrayed initially by many in the media too, with some very honorable exceptions, as tribal or ethnic conflict when there was increasingly compelling evidence of its true nature. They left the skeletons, the remains of many of the dead in that church as a way of saying never again. But there has been a great deal more violence since then, violence that touches on the issue of identity, first defined by ethnic group or religion or political allegiance.

There are of course other faces of religion, where conflict arouses controversy of a different kind. In the first sessions here this morning on Asian news perspectives we heard about the Maha Kumbha Mela, the world biggest religious gathering at Allahabad, northern India early this year and about the controversy that errupted over the images of naked sadhus processing to the river and bathing. I did an interview on the very last day of the Kumbha with one swami who said his problem with the coverage had much less to do with the filming of naked sadhus than with the media romanticizing the religiosity of the events, and his view was that if only all the fervor of the Kumbha could be translated into social action, then Indian's poor would be a lot better off. It's hard to win with the depiction of religion.

So to our panel, and first to Zaffar Abbas, who has twenty years in journalism, eleven of them with the BBC, highly respected if I may say so for his reporting from Pakistan. He has paid a price for his reporting, he was beaten up in Karachi in 1991 and he was with the BBC's Islamabad's bureau when it was attacked and set ablaze in 1995.

Zaffar Abbas: Thank you, Mike. On both the occasions when BBC was attacked in Pakistan, we analyzed and others analyzed and everyone agreed that BBC was not wrong in reporting what it was reporting at that time. There was not only international condemnation of the event, but at the same time the local journalists association and local political groups rallied around the BBC, there were marches on the streets, forcing the government to take action against those militant groups, and on both the occasions the militant groups apologized. But having said that, that is not always true on most of the coverage mainly about Islam and Islamic groups, which is the kind of in thing these days. I would like show you three video clips, and then we'll discuss how they are different from each other although they may not look different. [Video clips]

The first image is the aftermath of an attack on a Shi'a mosque and the immediate responses of people coming out on the street, shopkeepers bringing down their shutters, but there is no violence in reaction. The second image is about a practice of mourning by Shi'as which dates back more than a thousand years, and it has no relevance to what is going on in times of sectarian violence in Pakistan. And the third image, where you can see gunmen, you can see lot of mullahs, has nothing to do with the sectarian violence in Pakistan. Almost all of them are involved in the Kashmiri separatist movement. If one does not understand the differences between the three, it is there that the problem starts. And the difficulty in covering these stories is that people who are close to the story at times are scared to honestly analyze it. And for those who visit the country for one or two days to do the story, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between these, so they resort to stereotypes, which creates more problems. The kind of bashing that starts in the country against journalists coming from abroad and doing a story about Islam is immense and very difficult to defend. All I can say here is that while doing such a story one will have to understand that not every bearded Muslim is a fundamentalist, not every fundamentalist is an extremist, not every extremist is a fanatic, and not every fanatic is a terrorist. Unless you understand that, it would be very difficult to analyze a story about Islamic movements.

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed. Next is Riza Primadi, now director of news and current affairs with Trans-TV in Indonesia, which will start broadcasting later this year. Before that he held the same position the private station as SCTV. One speaker from Indonesia said in an earlier session said we have to be extremely careful in reporting ethnic conflict; we have to show the effects of the problem rather than the violence itself.

Riza Primadi: To be honest, most of the journalists are confuses and don't know what to do, don't know how to cover the ethnic and religious conflict in Indonesia. But to make it easier I can divide it into three eras. During the Suharto era, basically the media just ignored [ethnic conflict], particularly if it's not big enough-fewer than ten people killed or maybe fewer than ten houses being burned is very small compared to what you see in the picture lately in the country. This happened because the government forbade us to report. There were unwritten regulations saying that the media cannot report anything to do with ethnic, religious, racial, or other inter-group conflict or tension. But if the incident was big enough, the media mentioned just the number of victims, the number of the houses, without any reference at all to the religious or ethnic aspect of the conflict. The second era is during President Habibi, when we were more free, but still afraid to report the truth. The notion that we cannot touch anything about race, religion and ethnicity is there in every journalist's mind.

But gradually we've had to come to terms that truth is truth, even though it's been painful to tell. The Moluccas incident in late 1998-early 1999 started as ethnic conflict between the indigenous Moluccas and the people coming from Sulawesi and then escalated to become a religious conflict. That time we were also surprised, we didn't know how to cover it, how to handle that kind of magnitude of conflict. Even under President Wahid, when we can say anything what we want, we can tell it all but we cannot show it all. In 1999 there was an ethnic conflict in which we got pictures of cannibalism. It was a question of decency, whether we show it all. If I didn't show it, people will accuse me of censoring. But if I show it, I cannot imagine what the reaction would be, particularly from the Madurese, the people who were the victims. So my decision was to ban the pictures, but to tell it our narration that there is such an act of cannibalism.

Eventually we came to know a little more about how to report these stories, without any fear of endangering our reporter, for example, and also to be more understanding of the problem. We send our local correspondents. In the case of the Moluccas we had to send two, one a Muslim reporter and the other a Christian reporter, to cover this area. But the problem with this is that the longer they stay there, they become passionate; they cannot be dispassionate reporters anymore because they see what's happening, and this is why they stay maybe for one week and then we have to pull them back to Jakarta and send another group. That's the problem that we face in Indonesia, because the atrocities committed by two communities is beyond our imagination. In the case of Aceh we have to send local reporters and cameramen to the area, otherwise the rebels cannot guarantee their safety. That's something that we have to deal with. And then, because we cannot send a crew there for a long time, the reporter's attitude becomes, come, see the picture, and go back—what do you expect from that kind of reporting? We show the church burning, the mosque burning, that's it. But the current problem is that they miss [the story] because they don't understand the problem, even as Indonesians. And the other main problem is boredom. We are bored, the journalist is bored, because the conflict has been going on and on for almost two years now and they keep killing in the Moluccas, so we have to be "creative" to report the incident, or otherwise you are just reporting statistics, ten people killed and ten mosques burned. We're still trying to work out the best way to report the ethnic and religious conflict in Indonesia.

Wooldridge: Thanks very much indeed. I think you told me earlier that you now regret that decision regarding the cannibalism, is that right?

Primadi: To be honest, yes, I think we somehow have to show it, but at the time we hadn't any idea how to present the story.

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed. Next we have Arnold Zeitlin, director of the Asian Center of the Freedom Forum. He's also been in the field with the Associated Press and among other places reported from Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines. What has your experience taught you about the issues we are discussing here?

Arnold Zeitlin: First I must begin by saying that as the only bearded individual on the panel, I feel I occupy a peculiar position. I'm not a Muslim; however, this beard was raised in Muslim Pakistan 25 years ago, and I've kept it ever since. I grew it during a period of illness when I was in bed, and when I emerged I had this foliage. A friend, when he first saw it, said to me: ah, you've become a Sufi. And than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who by than was the prime minister of Bangladesh, saw it—this was after his time in jail in Pakistan—and he crept up behind me at a garden party in Dhaka and poked me hard in the ribs, and when I jumped he leaned over and said, I see you have grown a beard, but you have not changed your complexion.

This illustrates the fact that religion is infused in almost anything you do in South Asia—I found it too in Nigeria, where you have tensions between the Muslim north and the Christian and pagan south. You had ethnic difficulties that erupted in the civil war between different tribal groups. In the Philippines I found another a civil war based on religion, on differences between Christians and Muslims, which exists to this day, and this was almost 30 years ago. So I have been forced by circumstances to deal with religion in almost every kind of reporting I have done. And I have tried to report as I see it, taking into consideration the fact that we are reporting for an audience abroad in many secular nations where religion is not as prominent in one's thinking. You have to explain, you cannot deny the religious or ethnic differences that cause this particular incident or that particular incident. I believe someone in Indonesia has a remarkable solution to this problem of reporting. I'm told there is a newspaper in Indonesia that publishes one edition for Christians and another edition for Muslims. I think that's a remarkable effort. I don't know how well it works.

But my concern on this panel and being here in Singapore is that often societies deny religion or ethnicity as part of the problem of violence, political differences and so forth and so on. And often there are efforts in a society and in government to try to impose denial on the reporting of this news. Unfortunately this leads to the imposition of controls, not only on reporting on religion or ethnicity, but on everything. I think we have an example here in Singapore, where controls of the press and the way people report are justified by saying where you have a very diverse population, you don't want to arouse differences. You don't solve these differences by denying, you solve these differences by, I think, trying to talk them out, and learning that they exist and learning how they and learning how they can be somehow resolved. So I'm here simply to make a plea that yes, journalists have to be sensitive, but they also have to tell the story and the implications of what they report are for society to deal with. The journalist cannot be a gatekeeper of morality or consequence. His job, her job, is to tell the story in as accurate and best a manner as he or she can.

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed. Prem Prakash also has a perspective on all these issues that goes back over many years. His Delhi-based company Asian News International (ANI) has its roots in the company that he founded back in 1954. He is a cameraman, documentary maker, and now today, leading commentator as well, and his name is synonymous with so many of the watershed events in South Asia and indeed in the rest of Asia over this long period. The next videotape please. [Clip] From his own archive I brought that clip of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodha in December 1992. That was one of the events in this region in recent times that brought religion and politics together in a particularly traumatic way, in violence in which many people died. It remains an emotive issue in Indian politics until this day and probably will for some time in the future.

Your material comes from different countries; every day it appears on screens right across the world, it's part of people's news diet across the world and helps to form people's impression about South Asia. What are your views of the sensitivities around reporting communalism, as it is often called in South Asia, sectarianism if you like, and indeed religion?

Prem Prakash: South Asia is a very volatile area and it is an area which is inhabited by an equally volatile people. What you saw there is part of that volatility. The partition of India in 1947 was expected to sort out that religious problem by creating a separate state. But what happened in that partition was that, in the long human history—apart from being a journalist my subject is history, and I was a child at that time and I witnessed it—I don't think that mankind has witnessed the kind of violence, the kind of torture that human beings inflicted on each other. That was the part of independence of both India and Pakistan, and to date there isn't an explanation of why that happened, and it continues to hurt even today. It didn't solve the problems.

In this incident of the Babri Mosque, my company suffered a very heavy loss. I was lucky that my people came out alive, in the kind of violence that was suffered in those days. [The cameramen] were not carrying these small cameras, they were carrying cameras about this size, very expensive. You couldn't even find a little piece of this camera. People pulled down the entire structure, and that structure wasn't being used as a mosque, but clearly there were elements of both sides who were out to do something. It continues to hurt even today. Now, there is a colonial background, which the government of India follows, which even we as journalists in India follow as a code, which is that don't identify. We talk about groups, just say the clash took place between two groups. Now I say colonial background because until recently in Britain, which has been the home of one of the longest communal battles, that between Catholics and the Protestants, mass media was not even allowed to broadcast the voice of any of the separatists. It's a different version that we follow in India, but it still hasn't helped. My concern remains how you cover these incidents, because as Mike pointed out at the introduction, with the international media and satellite television, everything is being covered and watched, and how would you then keep it away? And with the volatile situations that we have in the South Asian region, one action causes chain reactions many other places.

Wooldridge: Thanks very much indeed. Next we go to Mano Wikramanayake, who is with Mahajara TV, MTV, in Sri Lanka. It's put out using three languages on an island that has seen far more than its share of conflict. Tell us about the experience of trying to be an independent voice in Sri Lanka.

Wikramanayake: Sri Lanka has been independent for about the past 54 years now and throughout this independence we've had sporadic violence, but it really got bad in 1983 when we had rioting throughout the island. And since then it's been nearly eighteen years of ongoing war in the northeast of the country. It is a result of a cynical government and a press which I believe didn't understand its responsibility and fanned the flames of racial hatred. And this problem has affected us in many ways. In 1983, when it happened, we were six years into an economic boom, we saw the liberalization of the economy in 1977, and we had eight percent real GDP growth for six years. And one week in July 1983 this whole thing was reversed. Foreign investment went away, professionals fled the island, and we went back to where we were in the beginning of the 1970s.

Now, our ethnic divide in the country is very visible. Although in real life, in the south of the country it doesn't matter that much. We have seventy percent who are Sinhalese, who are largely Buddhist, about fifteen to seventeen percent who are largely Hindu, and the balance is largely made up of Muslims of various origins: Indian Muslims, Muslims from the Middle East, Muslims from Malaysia. Practice of religions is very visible in these communities. Now after the troubles of 1983, and over I think the next two or three years, things got really bad in the country. The media began to realize that they were also partly responsible in a sense. People became aware that the country couldn't afford another July 1983, we couldn't afford island-wide rioting and civil unrest and the effects it had on society and the direct result on economic growth. I want to show you three news clips, by different channels, of an incident that took place last week in a little town 50 miles east of Colombo, where a very small incident sparked off a major ethnic clash, and look at how the three channels report it. The first one is Maharaja, and we think we are unbiased and nonpartisan in an environment where everybody is backing one side or the other. The second clip is the government channels news bulletin and the third clip is from the channel owned by the brother of the ruler of the opposition. You can see how differently we treated it and what the common trend is. [Clips]

Nobody really mentioned that the clashes were between Muslims and Sinhalese because it's a town that is divided by river and on the east side are Moslems and on the west side are Sinhalese. And the reason why we didn't report this fact—and even though the government imposed emergency regulations, we were reporting this on the radio from the afternoon—but we didn't mention the clash because we knew that if we did and if we showed the pictures we had of mosques being destroyed and so on, this would have generated further clashes that could have spread, and more lives would have been lost.

The question I'd like to leave with you and the panelists today is, should we have reported all the facts, knowing that lives would be lost? Or should we have taken the view we did, and slowly, over the last week, filtered information through?

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed for that extremely illuminating example. Our final panelist is Steven Claypole. Our careers actually started along the same path and at just about the same time, then Steven went on to senior TV management in the BBC and via that to his consultancy role today around the world. What we have asked Steven do is to draw together some of the strands from these other contributors here and to talk from his experience, particularly his experience of being a Northern Ireland editor in BBC, about how he believes these sensitive issues should be handled.

Steven Claypole: Thank you, Mike. I should perhaps start with a disclaimer, and that is that I wouldn't presume at this point to speak for the BBC, but I can speak of the BBC and I can speak of my experiences through a three-year period in Northern Ireland as the chief editor there of news and current affairs. Many of the issues that have been raised by the panelists today were issues that confronted the BBC thirty years ago. Back in those days, the BBC was accustomed to sending smart chaps from Oxford and Cambridge wearing safari suits to different parts of the world to report on other people's upheavals and catastrophes. And the emphasis is on chaps; there are no women correspondents in those days. And suddenly in the UK there was a very serious conflict in Northern Ireland, a huge problem that until the recent events in the ex-Yugoslavia was probably the most serious conflict in Europe. There might be arguments that the problems in Spain with the Basque separatists were comparable, but for a long-running, very serious conflict there was really no equal throughout Europe.

My belief, looking back historically over the role of the BBC, is that the BBC thirty years ago was part of the problem. The BBC had instructions from various quarters not to disturb the calm that followed the official IRA campaign in Ireland in the 1950s. There was an understanding that certain things would be overlooked or paraphrased or codified. There was for example no coverage of Gaelic football, which is a hugely popular sport among the Catholic communities, and certainly there were political issues that never got covered. And suddenly, because of educational reforms that had been pushed through some years earlier, there was a highly educated group of people from the Roman Catholic tradition who came through the universities, and they joined the upheavals students of 1968 that started in Paris, and that was the beginning of the current conflict. The BBC's position and role did not help the situation when things started to go badly wrong.

At the other end of the scale, the BBC has certainly been part of what could be a solution in Northern Ireland. It's been able to operate in such a way that the politicians have been able to carry out some dialogue; part of the negotiations have gone on not just through the BBC but also through Ulster television and Sky News and international broadcasters. What went in between is, I think, something the BBC can be very proud of. It did respond very rapidly to the events back in 1968 and 1969. The policies which were evolved, the ethos which was created have really shaped and formed the BBC's journalism today.

Now, the most shocking thing for BBC executives in the 1960s, the thing which occupied most of the policymakers, was that for the first time the BBC was broadcasting within the community, in fact broadcasting within two communities, because of the two cultures, the two traditions in the north. It was also broadcasting to that community or those communities from London, and it was also broadcasting on the entire situation to the world through the BBC World Service. Very quickly the senior policymakers and thinkers decided quite sensibly that there had to be a one-BBC approach, that you could not have different parts of the BBC reporting things in different ways or putting notably different emphasis on the coverage.

I was very struck that in the discussion we had yesterday afternoon about the Philippines that the BBC is now in a position worldwide where it not only reports a situation in international locations or datelines for domestic audience, it's also reporting into the community. The pictures and the reportage from the BBC on the Philippines is seen on the ten o'clock news, but it's also seen by significant numbers of people in the Philippines and in countries surrounding the Philippines. So the one-BBC policy has to apply more than it ever did. It is absolutely essential to the survival of the BBC's reputation in Northern Ireland. There were huge problems with the BBC because first of all it had the name "British" in its title of course, so it was seen in certain quarters as being part of the British government or the British establishment. And on the other end of the scale the Protestant tradition felt that the BBC, being a British institution, should uphold the constitution of the union. So these are some of the issues, and I think they are very similar to the issues that have been aired by the panelists in the last few minutes.

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